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How Climate Change Helped Fuel Syria’s Civil War

syria conflict 1

Climate change was a key driver of the Syrian uprising, according to new research which warns that global warming is likely to unleash more wars in the coming decades, with Eastern Mediterranean countries such as Jordan and Lebanon particularly at risk.

Experts have long predicted that climate change will be a major source of conflict as drought and rising temperatures hurt agriculture, putting a further strain on resources in already unstable regimes.

But the Syria conflict is the first war that scientists have explicitly linked to climate change. Researchers say that global warming intensified the region’s worst-ever drought, pushing the country into civil war by destroying agriculture and forcing an exodus to cities already straining from poverty, an influx of refugees from war-torn Iraq next door and poor government.

“We’re not saying the drought caused the war,” Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and another co-author of the paper, said in a statement. “We’re saying that added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict.”

Timeline of events leading up to the civil uprising in March 2011, along with a graph showing the net migration of displaced Syrians and Iraqi refugees into urban areas (in millions) since 2005. Source: Kelley et al. (2015)

Timeline of events leading up to the civil uprising in March 2011, along with a graph showing the net migration of displaced Syrians and Iraqi refugees into urban areas (in millions) since 2005. Source: Kelley et al. (2015)

The Syrian conflict began in March 2011, with protests against the regime of President Bashar Assad. The Assad government responded with a violent crackdown on protesters, and four years later, various armed factions — ranging from moderate U.S.-backed rebels to the extremist Islamic State group — are fighting for control of the splintering country. An estimated 200,000 people have died in the conflict, and the United Nations estimates that 7.6 million have been internally displaced.

The conflict was immediately preceded by a prolonged and devastating drought that sparked the mass migration of rural workers into Syrian cities. The severity of the 2006 to 2010 drought, and more importantly the failure of Bashar al-Assad’s regime to prepare, or respond to it effectively, exacerbated other tensions, from unemployment to corruption and inequality, which erupted in the wake of the Arab spring revolutions, the report says.

The report, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, warns that the entire Middle East “faces a drier, hotter climate due to climate change. This will stress water resources and agriculture, and will likely further increase risk of conflict.” Global warming is desiccating the region in two ways: higher temperatures that increase evaporation in already parched soils, and weaker winds that bring less rain from the Mediterranean Sea during the wet season (November to April).

According to the report, the drought-ravaged Fertile Crescent region, including Syria, witnessed a 13% drop in its winter rainfall since 1931. The area has also warmed 1 to 1.2 degrees Centigrade since 1900. In a 2011 report, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded that human-caused climate change is a “major factor” driving more frequent and prolonged droughts in the Middle East and Mediterranean. The map below, by NOAA, clearly shows that Syria — in bright red — experienced the worst drying in the region:

Turkey, Lebananon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Afghanistan are among those most at risk from drought because of the intensity of the drying and the history of conflict in the region, the report says. Israel is much better equipped to withstand climate change than its neighbors because it is wealthy, politically stable and imports much of its food. Drought-ravaged East African countries such as Somalia and Sudan are also vulnerable along with parts of Central America – especially Mexico, which is afflicted by crime, is politically unstable, short of water and reliant on agriculture, the report says.

The link between climate change and human conflict is an issue of increasing global concern. A United Nations panel on climate change last year warned that continued changes in the earth’s climate could lead to increased conflicts over land and resources. And an October report from the Pentagon described climate change as a “threat multiplier” that would lead to greater instability.

But while most predictions about climate change’s impact on conflict look far into the future, this week’s study suggests that we’re already starting to see these effects in action, underscoring a somber reality that the world will have to confront.

“Being able to, in a specific region, draw this story line together we think is pretty significant,” Seager told National Geographic. “The entire world needs to be planning for a drier future in that area. And there will be lots of global implications.”

This report comes on the heels of a recent study by scientists at NASA, which warned that “unprecedented drought conditions” — the worst in more than 1,000 years — are likely to plague the Southwest and Central Plains starting around 2050 and remaining for decades at a time. These so-called ‘mega-droughts’ are “driven primarily” by human-induced global warming, scientists said, adding that the conditions “will likely be worse than anybody has experienced in the history of the United States.”

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